Learning to communicate effectively is a complicated process, involving multiple skills that develop concurrently. A child’s speech and language skills develop as they grow from infancy to school age. This development should follow suggested timelines and patterns. When it doesn’t, this can be a worry for parents and is cause for a professional evaluation by a speech-language pathologist. Often, these difficulties can be treated with speech and/or language therapy.
Normal speech might seem effortless, but it’s actually a complex process that needs precise timing, and nerve and muscle control. When we speak, we must coordinate many muscles from various body parts and systems, including the larynx, which contains the vocal cords; the teeth, lips, tongue, and mouth; and the respiratory system. The ability to understand language and produce speech is coordinated by the brain.
A number of events must occur for us to speak. The brain MUST:
- Want to communicate an idea to someone else
- Send the idea to the mouth
- Tell the mouth which words to say and which sounds make up those words
- Incorporate patterns and accented syllables (to avoid sounding like a robot)
- Send the signals to the muscles that control the tongue, lips, and jaw
Language is what we speak, write, read, and understand. Language is also communicating through gestures (body language or sign language). There are two distinct areas of language: receptive (what we hear and understand from others’ speech or gestures) and expressive (the words we use to create messages others will understand).
In order for children to begin using and understanding spoken language, they must:
- Hear well enough to distinguish one word from another
- Have someone model what words mean and how to put sentences together
- Hear intonation patterns, accents, and sentence patterns
- Have the intellectual capability to process what words and sentences mean, store the information, and recall words and sentences heard previously when communicating an idea to someone else
- Have the physical capability to speak in order for others to hear and understand the words they are saying
- Have a social need and interest in using words to communicate with others
- Have another person to positively reinforce their attempts at communication
AGE RED FLAG
Birth & Up • does not smile/interact with others
4 – 7 months • does not babble (“bababa”)
7 – 12 months • very few sounds or gestures (pointing)
7 months – 2 years • poor comprehension of what others say
1 1/2 – 2 years • speech is difficult for listeners to understand
1 1/2 – 3 years • does not combine words into sentences
2 – 3 years • difficulty talking to and playing with peers
2 1/2 – 3 years • difficulty with early literacy and writing skills
Speech Sound Disorders
AGE RED FLAG
1 – 2 years • incorrect production of early sounds /p,b,m,h,w/ in words
2 – 3 years • incorrect production of /k,g,f,t,d,n/ in words
2 – 3 years • speech is unclear, even to familiar listeners
AGE RED FLAG
2 1/2 – 3 years • difficulty producing sounds or words
2 1/2 – 3 years • repeats the first sound of words (b-b-b-baby for “baby”)
2 1/2 – 3 years • frequent pauses of silence when talking
2 1/2 – 3 years • stretching sounds out while talking (sssss-silly for “silly”)
AGE RED FLAG
any age • hoarse- or breathy-sounding voice
any age • nasal quality to voice
AGE RED FLAG
birth – 1 year • poor attention to sounds in the environment
7 months – 1 year • does not respond when name is called
1 – 2 years • difficulty following simple directions
birth – 3 years • delays in speech and/or language development
any age • scratching or pulling at ears
school-age • limited academic progress, especially math and/or reading
school-age • social isolation and unhappiness at school
school-age • discomfort in ears after exposure to loud noise
Encouraging good communication
Parents play the most important role in building communication skills in their children. Children develop communication habits by the way they see parents interacting with others. Parents who listen and speak with patience, interest, and attention prove to be the best teachers of listening and give their children the greatest audience in the world.
Listening is a learned skill and an essential part of the communication exchange with your child. It is important to model good listening skills when your child is communicating via verbal messages (questions, requests) or nonverbal ones (actions or non-actions). You will be setting a good example for your children, and help them to become active listeners.
Active listening is the central component of communication. When parents are active listeners, other people may describe them as having good intuition and as being “tuned in” to their children. The process of active listening will help your child understand feelings and be less afraid of the negative ones. It will also allow them the opportunity to talk about and solve their own problems as well as gain more control over behaviour and emotions.
To become an active listener:
- Set aside time to listen and block out distractions as much as possible. Encourage your child to talk directly to you so you may model the habits of good listening.
- Some parents and children find they can communicate best just before bedtime or when they share an evening snack.
- Maintain eye contact while your child talks. When your child speaks to you, show that you are genuinely interested in their thoughts and feelings.
- Listen to, summarise, and repeat back to your child the message you are hearing.
- Watch for your child’s nonverbal cues including facial expressions, posture, energy level, or changes in behaviour patterns. The underlying messages may include the feelings, fears, and concerns of your child such as being scared… sad…angry…happy.
- Accept and show respect for what your child is expressing, even if it does not coincide with your own ideas and expectations.
- Listen respectfully and do not cut children off before they have finished speaking.
- Strengthen your child’s confidence by reassuring them that you hear their ideas.
- When talking to your child, try to make it a positive dialogue, rather than impose judgment or place blame. Also, as you communicate with your child, be sensitive to your tone of voice. Do not let your emotions confuse the message you are trying to convey. Avoid using “put-down” messages that judge or criticize a child.
- Consider using “I” messages rather than “you” messages, especially when attempting to change or encourage certain behaviour. “I” messages are statements like “I would like more quiet time when I am trying to read.” With “I” statements, children receive the message in a more positive light. They often say things like “I didn’t realize that the noise I was making was bothering you.” Children often assume more responsible roles if they are made aware of and understand the feelings and needs of others.
- By contrast, “you” messages are statements like “You should never do that.” “You make me so angry.” “Why don’t you pay attention?” These messages are more child-focused and are more likely to put a child on the defensive, encourage personal counter-arguments, and discourage effective communication.
- Be as consistent as possible with all your children. You should have the same communication approach and style with every child, although the unique aspects of each relationship and each child’s temperament may require some modifications.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, it’s always a good idea to consult with a qualified Speech-Language Therapist.